4-seater air taxi that can change the way Indians travel
The Tecnam P2006T air taxi would go a long way in ensuring last-mile connectivity and affordable air travel for all
Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar flagged off an air taxi service from Chandigarh to Hisar on January 14. This flight was part of the government's Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme that seeks to ensure that air travel is within the reach of every Indian.
The Hisar–Chandigarh–Hisar route was awarded to the Gurugram-based Aviation Connectivity and Infrastructure Developers Private Limited (Air Taxi India) under the UDAN 4.0 bidding process, according to ET Now. The company became the first startup airline of the country to offer air taxi services. It was granted operation permit by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in December 2020.
Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar flagging off the air taxi service. Image courtesy: Twitter/@mlkhattar
In August last year, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced that 78 new routes had been approved under the fourth round of the Regional Connectivity Scheme—Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik (RCS-UDAN) to expand connectivity to the remote and treacherous terrains of the hilly regions of India.
"UDAN 4.0 is ready to go. Seventy-eight additional routes have now been approved, taking the total number of sanctioned routes to 766. 18 unserved/underserved airports would be connected to metro cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Kochi, etc," Puri tweeted.
A Tecnam P2006T monoplane gliding through the air. Image courtesy: Tecnam
The air taxi service adds an emphasis to the UDAN story. Air travel, like mobile telephony, had ceased to be an elite product for a long time. The entry of low-cost carriers led by Air Deccan had revolutionised air travel a couple of decades back, and the UDAN scheme, launched in 2016, sought to make air travel more and more affordable to the masses.
RCS-UDAN sought to connect unserved and underserved airports of the country through a revival of existing airstrips and airports. It was envisaged as a big boost for the economic development of the remotest corners of the country.
The government has allocated $82 million to the UDAN scheme in Budget 2021-22, aviation consultancy CAPA pointed out.
Let us now look at the air taxi in some detail. Firstly, the plane: Tecnam P2006T. It is a small plane that can accommodate just four people but has the potential to change the way people travel in India. "It would be interesting to watch how this small aircraft would change the way people travel in this post-Covid world," the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) tweeted on January 15, adding that more cities would be added soon. According to a reply by Puri in Parliament, 26 routes were awarded to small aircraft operators (Category 1A), carrying less than nine passengers, under UDAN 3.0 and 4.0.
A Tecnam P2006T pilot manoeuvring the plane through the night sky. Image courtesy: Tecnam
The Tecnam P2006T is a high-winged, twin-engined light monoplane built by Costruzioni Aeronautiche Tecnam, based in Capua, Italy. Designed by Luigi Pascale, the Tecnam P2006T first flew on September 13, 2007, and was introduced into service in 2010.
Smaller than a DTC bus
The Tecnam P2006T is 28.5 feet (8.7 m) in length and 8.46 (2.58 m) feet in height. The length, for example, is less than the Tata Motors Marco Polo buses used by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) for mass transit. These buses have a standard length of about 12 metres. As far as the height of the Tecnam P2006T is concerned, it is not too greater than the Tata Sumo sports utility vehicle (SUV), which has a height of 1.92 m.
The Tecnam P2006T is a little more than a Tata Sumo SUV in height. Image courtesy: Twitter/@MoCA_GoI
The Tecnam P2006T's wingspan of 37.4 feet (11.4 m) by and large covers the entire length of a common DTC bus. The main door width and height of the aircraft are 25 inches (634 mm) and 38 inches (970 mm) respectively.
The aircraft flies on two four-cylinder four-stroke Rotax 912S3 liquid-cooled engines that generate 200 horsepower together. The time between overhauls (TBO) of these Rotax engines is an exceptional 2,000 hours.
Also read: After seaplanes, air taxi services take UDAN in India
The empty weight of the aircraft is 819 kg, while the baggage allowance is 80 kg. The aircraft can hold 200 litres of fuel. Its useful load is 411 kg. In aviation jargon, useful load refers to the sum of the weight of the pilot, copilot, passengers, baggage, usable fuel and drainable oil. In other words, it is the basic empty weight subtracted from the maximum allowable gross weight. This term is applicable to general aviation aircraft only. The maximum takeoff weight of the airplane is 1,230 kg.
"Tecnam has used its extensive experience with aluminium airframes to create a robust yet very light airframe in the Tecnam P2006T, resulting in an outstanding payload-to-total-weight ratio," the company says in its website. This results in an "outstanding" payload-to-total-weight ratio. The Rotax engines -- weighing 64 kg each -- are significantly lighter than comparable existing engines, according to an article in Australian Flying. This power-to-weight ratio was used by Tecnam to its advantage to manufacture that P2006T, which generates more power than comparable single-engine airplanes, but comes with the added safety of two engines.
"Safety is provided by the twin-engine configuration, which burns less fuel than comparable single-engine competitors," Tecnam says. Flight safety is further enhanced by the TAS 800 Garmin traffic advisory system. The average fuel consumption of the P2006T is just 34 litres per hour and is as low as 25 litres per hour in holding/loiter mode.
Also read: Why UDAN 4.0 is a massive boost for Atmanirbhar Bharat
"The wide cabin allows for a large instrument panel with state-of-the-art avionics options: twin-screen G1000 Nxi IFR, new flat-panel suite with integrated STEC-55 autopilot. Performance-based Navigation (PBN), in simple terms, redefines the aircraft’s required navigation capability from sensor-(equipment)-based to performance-based," Tecnam says. "Multi engine, constant-speed propeller, retractable gear make the P2006T the ideal solution for complex training. At the cost of a single engine!" the company adds.
The aircraft can fly on both MOGAS (conventional gasoline used in motor vehicles) and AVGAS (aviation fuel used in aircraft with spark-ignited internal combustion engines). The aircraft has a "high flexibility with both aviation and automotive fuel (up to 10% ethanol content) approved, also mixed in any ratio".
The Tecnam P2006T cockpit. Image courtesy: Tecnam
"The Tecnam P2006T Twin has established itself as the aircraft of choice for not only the world’s most reputable flight training organisations but private owners alike," the airline company says. The aircraft can also be used for surveillance.
The maximum cruise speed of the Tecnam P2006T is 150 knots (278 kmph). It, in fact, has a wide speed range of 55 knots (101.8 kmph) to 145 knots (268.5 kmph). The range of the airplane is 669 nautical miles (1,240 km), which makes it ideal to serve tourists over short distances. The airplane can climb at the rate of 1,036 feet/minute (5.3 metre/second).
The airplane has extremely low maintenance and operation cost. It has 0.3 hours of maintenance per flight. The aircraft is built for a long endurance of five hours.
Also read: With Blade choppers, cut the jam, fly from Mumbai to Pune in 45 minutes
The high-wing configuration allows for stability, cabin comfort and a clear view for the passengers and pilot. The fully retractable landing gear makes room for the installation of multiple sensors on the belly, avoiding reflections, obstacles and interferences. This in turn maximises the performance of the sensors.
A soaring Tecnam P2006T. Image courtesy: Tecnam
The high-mounted wings and light Rotax engines help in easy access to the cabin and adequate prop clearance when operating on rough surfaces, according to Australian Flying. The aircraft can operate from short strips, a Financial Times article pointed out.
Merits of an air taxi
Aviation Connectivity and Infrastructure Developers Pvt Ltd says that it is a major bidder in the RCS-UDAN scheme and has been awarded 32 routes, with more to follow. According to Conde Nast Traveller, during the launch, the air taxi service was planned to be extended on Hisar-Dehradun, Chandigarh-Dehradun and Hisar-Dharamsala routes. Kullu and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh and more places in Haryana apart from Hisar are on the airline's radar as well. This would help the Indian aviation industry to penetrate even deeper into the Tier-2 and Tier-3 city ecosystem, true to the RCS-UDAN objective.
The air taxi service comes at a surprisingly affordable cost. A ticket on the inaugural route -- Hisar to Chandigarh -- is priced at Rs 1,755. To put things into perspective, the normal Volvo bus fare between the two cities is Rs 700. However, for a little over twice the cost, a lot of travelling time can be saved.
Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar during the launch of the air taxi service between Hisar and Chandigarh. Twitter/@mlkhattar
According to the Air Taxi India website, the service has been designed to ease travelling woes to smaller cities. "Saving your time is our priority, and we have taken every possible step to ensure that you spend no more than 15 minutes at the airport," Air Taxi India says. It dispenses with the need for queuing at airports during check-in and boarding. The service has been designed in such a way that a passenger spends no more than 15 minutes at the departure airport and five minutes at the arrival airport. "The essence of short-haul air travel is minimum time wastage," the Air Taxi India website says. Flying on an air taxi also gives a luxurious, private air travel experience for a passenger, with just three more people around.
The leg space on a Tecnam P2006T air taxi is more than that offered in the economy class of regular airlines. The elbow room and shoulder room are also more than those in regular airliners. Every passenger on an air taxi is assured of a window seat. These air taxis would fly with a speed limit of 250 kmph, according to Conde Nast Traveller.
India no stranger to air taxis
The concept of air taxis is not new in India. In 2018, the then Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha said following a meeting with a delegation from taxi-hailing company Uber that the government's drone policy would help in making air taxis a reality in India soon.
Uber was looking to start a ridesharing service called Uber Air in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru by 2023, according to a report in The Economic Times. The fares were expected to be around Rs 200/km, which could even fall to Rs 50/km. The Uber plan involved the use of rooftops of high rises and dedicated skyports for the air taxi service.
The air taxi service can be a gamechanger in solving the problems of urban transportation, especially in crowded and congested areas. According to Uber, its air taxi service can cut travelling time in Mumbai by 90%, PTI/UNI reported. Eric Allison, Chief Executive, Uber Aviation Program, said that the air taxis can bring down travelling time from the Mumbai airport in the city's western suburbs to downtown Churchgate in south Mumbai from 100 minutes to just 10 minutes!
Helicopters have already been ferrying people over short distances. US-based flight aggregator Blade Urban Air Mobility Inc, in partnership with investment firm Hunch Ventures, forayed into the Indian market in December 2018. Blade chopper flights today connect Mumbai, Pune and the pilgrimage centre Shirdi with each other.
Two parked Tecnam P2006T planes. Image courtesy: Tecnam
An experiment carried out by Blade proved that air travel within Mumbai has immense potential. In December 2019, Blade flew a one-way intra-city helicopter shuttle to take people to a U2 concert at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai. According to an AIN report, 14 sorties were made for 89 passengers and the travelling time was cut significantly.
Blade India also announced its expansion to Bangalore, another city notorious for its traffic jams. To start with, the plan was to offer charter services between Bangalore and locations within Karnataka.
The company has also been thinking about starting a regular shuttle air taxi service between Mumbai and Pune, which would compress a four-to-five-hour road journey into 37 minutes. Pune figures in the list of top-five most traffic-congested cities in the world along with Bangalore and Mumbai. However, notwithstanding all the advantages, Blade services are quite costly and are useful particularly for high net worth individuals.
Furthermore, the Bengaluru International Airport Limited (BIAL) had planned the HeliTaxi service to ferry passengers between the Kempegowda International Airport and various parts of the city at the cost of a luxury cab, but at a much lesser time, according to an India Today report in 2017. The Bengaluru airport is located about 40 km from the city centre, 60-70 km from the Electronic City in the south and the IT corridors in the southeast and southwest of the city. The BIAL had, in this regard, tied up with helicopter service provider Thumby Aviation Limited.
Blade choppers have already offering short-distance travel based on the air taxi concept. Image courtesy: Blade India
"While the Udan scheme focuses on regional connectivity, the HeliTaxi shuttle service will ensure quick transfers to and from the airport. Efficient last-mile connectivity is key to ensuring India as a true global aviation hub," said the then Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha.
This last-mile connectivity and affordable air travel for all are the cornerstones of RCS-UDAN, and the Tecnam P2006T air taxi would go a long way in the realisation of these goals. As noted by Usha Padhee, Joint Secretary, MoCA, and first woman Director General of India's aviation security body Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS), "Different models to make UDAN better." Indeed, air taxis could soon be a common mode of air travel for Indians.